Sayyid Qutb ; October 9, 1906 (The Library of Congress has his birth year as 1903) – August 29, 1966) was an Egyptian intellectual author, and Islamist associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He is best known for his theoretical work on redefining the role of Islamic fundamentalism in social and political change, particularly in his books "Social Justice" and Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). His extensive Quranic commentary Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the shades of the Qur'an) has contributed significantly to modern perceptions of Islamic concepts such as jihad, jahiliyyah, and ummah.
Alternative spellings of his first and last names include Saïd, Syed, Koteb (rather common), Qutub, Kotb, etc. Qutb was arrested and imprisoned in 1955 following publication of Milestones. He was released in 1964 following the personal intervention of the President of Iraq. A year later he was re-arrested. In August 1966 he was executed, found guilty of conspiring against the government. He is widely credited as one of the main intellectual leaders of Islamism, and as justifying revolution against regimes considered to be un-Islamic. His extensive writing on the Qur'an pioneered a new trend for Muslims to read and interpret the text for themselves, since he was not a traditionally trained scholar nor did he follow a conventional format in his commentaries. His approach engaged with the cadence of the Arab text, capturing even in English translation the beauty of the original Arabic often obscured in English renderings. His legacy is both revered and reviled, depending on the sympathies of those who read his books.
Qutb was raised in the Egyptian village of Musha and educated from a young age in the Qur'an. He moved to Cairo, where he received a Western education between 1929 and 1933, before starting his career as a teacher in the Ministry of Public Instruction. During his early career, Qutb devoted himself to literature as an author and critic, writing such novels as Ashwak (Thorns) and even elevating Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz from obscurity. In 1939 he became a functionary in Egypt's Ministry of Education (wizarat al-ma'arif). From 1948 to 1950 he went to the United States on a scholarship to study the educational system, receiving a master's degree from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado). Qutb's first major theoretical work of religious social criticism, Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), was published in 1949, during his time overseas.
Aside from his untimely end Qutb's personal life was not always happy. Though Islam gave him much peace and contentment he suffered from respiratory and other health problems throughout his life, and was known for "his introvertedness, isolation, depression and concern." In appearance he was "pale with sleepy eyes." Qutb never married, in part because of his steadfast religious convictions. While the urban Egyptian society he lived in was becoming more Westernized, Qutb believed the Qur'an (Surat al-Nisa, 4:32) taught women that "Men are the managers of women's affairs …"  Qutb lamented to his readers that he was never able to find a woman of sufficient "moral purity and discretion" and had to reconcile himself to bachelorhood.
Qutb was extremely critical of many things in the United States, its racism, materialism, individual freedom, its economic system, poor haircuts, triviality, restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, "animal-like" mixing of the sexes (which went on even in churches), and lack of support for the Palestinian struggle. In an article published in Egypt after his travels, he noted with disapproval the sexuality of Americans:
The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.
… and their taste in music
Jazz is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires …
On the theme of women in the West, Qutb also remarked that "Free sexual intercourse and illegitimate children’ are the basis of Western society, where women’s role ‘is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious’. Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were "primitive" and shocking. His experiences in the U.S. partly formed the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards radicalism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service, he joined the Brotherhood in the early 1950s and became editor-in-chief of the Brothers' weekly Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, and later head of the propaganda section, as well as an appointed member of the Working Committee and of the Guidance Council, the highest branch in the Brotherhood.  From the same period, Qutb started to read the writings of Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, who exerted considerable influence on his thinking.
In June 1952 Egypt's pro-Western government was overthrown by the nationalist Free Officers Movement headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Both Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the coup against the monarchist government—which they saw as unIslamic and subservient to British imperialism - and enjoyed a close relationship with the Movement prior to and immediately following the coup. Many members of the Brotherhood expected Nasser to establish an Islamic government. However, the cooperation between the Brotherhood and Free Officers which marked the revolution's success soon soured as it became clear the secular nationalist ideology of Nasserism was incompatible with the Islamism of the Brotherhood. Nasser's regime refused to ban alcohol or implement other parts of sharia law.
After the attempted assassination of Nasser in 1954, the Egyptian government used the incident to justify a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoning Qutb and many others for their vocal opposition to various government policies. While in prison, Qutb wrote his two most important works: a commentary of the Qur'an Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), and a manifesto of political Islam called Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). These works represent the final form of Qutb's thought, encompassing his radical, antiestablishment claims based on his interpretations of the Qur'an, Islamic history, and the social and political problems of Egypt. The school of thought he inspired has become known as Qutbism.
Qutb was let out of prison at the end of 1964 at the behest of the then Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Salam Arif, for only eight months before being rearrested in August 1965. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the state and subjected to what some consider a show trial. Many of the charges placed against Qutb in court were taken directly from Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq and he adamantly supported his written statements. The trial culminated in a death sentence for Qutb and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. On August 29, 1966, Sayyid Qutb was executed by hanging.
There have been various theories advanced as to why Qutb turned from a secular reformist in the 1930s to a radical Islamist in the 1950s (the latter clearly evidenced in Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq). One common explanation is that the conditions he witnessed in prison from 1954-1964, including the torture and murder of Muslim Brothers, convinced him that only a government bound by Islamic law could prevent such abuses. Another theory is that Qutb's experiences in America and the insufficiently anti-Western policies of Nasser demonstrated to him the powerful and dangerous allure of Jahiliyya - a threat unimaginable, in Qutb's estimation, to the secular mind. Finally, Qutb offered his own explanation in Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, arguing that:
…anything non-Islamic was evil and corrupt, while following Sharia as a complete system extending into all aspects of life, would bring every kind of benefit to humanity, from personal and social peace, to the "treasures" of the universe.
In general, Qutb's experiences as an Egyptian - his village childhood, professional career, and activism in the Muslim Brotherhood - left an unmistakable mark on his theoretical and religious works. Even Qutb's early, secular writing shows evidence of his later themes. For example, Qutb's autobiography of his childhood Tifl min al-Qarya (A Child From the Village) makes little mention of Islam or political theory, and is typically classified as a secular, literary work. However, it is replete with references to village mysticism, superstition, the Qur'an, and incidences of injustice. Qutb's later work developed along similar themes, dealing with Qur'anic exegesis, social justice, and political Islam.
Qutb's career as a writer also heavily influenced his philosophy. In al-Tafsir al-Fanni fil-Quran (Artistic Representation in the Qur'an), Qutb developed a literary appreciation of the Qur'an and a complementary methodology for interpreting the text. His hermeneutics were applied in his extensive commentary on the Qur'an, Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), which served as the foundation for the radical declarations of Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq. In the Shade, he hardly draws at all on what previous exegetes have written, nor does he engage in detailed linguistic analysis. Rather, he creates a discourse between different passages in the Qur'an and uses his commentary to support his "social and political agenda". Qutb's commentary, though, conveys something of the poetic quality of the Qu'ran (which is rhymed prose). For example, on Surah 88 he wrote:
Late in his life, Qutb synthesized his personal experiences and intellectual development into a body of religious and political convictions, published in the famous Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq. This work summarized Qutb's general views on the true Islamic system. It was also in this text that Qutb clearly condemned secular governments, like Abdul Nasser's regime in Egypt, who based their legitimacy on human authority or consent. More than any other, this work established Qutb as one of the premier radical Islamists in the twentieth century.
Whether he espoused dictatorship, or later rule by Sharia law with essentially no government at all, Sayyid Qutb's mature political views always centered on Islam - Islam as a complete system of morality, justice and governance, whose Sharia laws and principles should be the sole basis of governance and everything else in life. He believed that a genuinely Islamic state would automatically be a just state, and that the establishment of Sharia law would result in the emergence of a legitimate Islamic government, although he did not detail what this would involve or how it would be structured. On the other hand, Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi did detail this, so perhaps Qutb did not feel the need to do so. On the issue of Islamic governance, Qutb differed with many modernist and reformist Muslims who claimed democracy was Islamic because the Quranic institution of Shura supported elections and democracy. Qutb pointed out that the Shura chapter of the Qur'an was revealed during the Mekkan period, and therefore, it does not deal with the problem of government. It makes no reference to elections and calls only for the ruler to consult some of the ruled, as a particular case of the general rule of Shura and argued a `just dictatorship` would be more Islamic. He was scathingly critical of Western democracies, suggesting that it was naive to think that sovereignty and power was really vested in the people, since elites and those who fund elections wield real power. Islam recognizes God as sovereign, not people or elected governments Qutb also opposed the then popular ideology of Arab nationalism, having become disillusioned with the 1952 Nasser Revolution and exposed to regime's practices of arbitrary arrest, torture, and deadly violence during his imprisonment. Arab nationalism elevated race above Islam; Islam was for all people, not just Arabs. Neither Marxism or capitalism could deliver humanity. Christianity, too, was a spent force. He wrote,
"Islam is a purely divine religion, whereas in Christianity human distortions have crept in and communism is purely a product of man's fantasy." Christianity was too "abstract," dreaming of a reality "to be realized only in the Kingdom of Heaven," while Islam's dream "is the perpetual dream of humanity." Christianity addresses only "spiritual aspirations" while neglecting "bodily desires".
This exposure to abuse of power undoubtedly contributed to the ideas in his famous prison-written Islamic manifesto Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq where he argued:
The vanguard movement would grow until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world.
Qutb emphasized this struggle would be anything but easy. True Islam would transform every aspect of society, eliminating everything non-Muslim. Jahili erzatz-Muslims, Jews and Westerners would all fight and conspire against Islam and the elimination of Jahiliyyah. True Muslims could look forward to lives of "poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice."
Although earlier Muslims (Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi and Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab) had used Jahiliyya to refer to contemporary Muslim societies, no one before Qutb had applied it so widely, nor had such popular response. While Islam had seen many religious revivals urging a return to religious fundamentals throughout its history, Qutb was the first thinker who paired them to a radical, sociopolitical ideology.
Qutb always stressed that the Islamic revolution would only succeed if Islam was a "living reality" in people's hearts . Throughout his writing, he also stressed that Islam was a global movement that was destined to lead the world, based on Q3: 110, "you are the best community" . he argued for a gradual revolution, starting with a single nation that would then become a model for others until a trans-national entity could be re-established, since there should only be one Islamic "nation" (ummah).
Criticism of Qutb's ideas comes from several, sometimes opposite, directions.
Alongside notable Islamists like Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, Hasan al-Banna, and Ruhollah Khomeini, Qutb is considered one of the most influential Muslim thinkers or activists of the modern era, not only for his ideas but for what many consider his heroic martyr's death.
His written works are still widely available and have been translated into many Western languages. Qutb's best known work is Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones), but the majority of Qutb's theory can be found in his Qur'anic commentary Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Quran). This 30-volume work is noteworthy for its innovative method of interpretation, borrowing heavily from the literary analysis of Amin al-Khuli, while retaining some structural features of classical commentaries (for example, the practice of progressing from the first sura to the last).
The influence of his work extends to issues such as Westernization, modernization, and political reform and the theory of inevitable ideological conflict between "Islam and the West" the notion of a transnational umma, and the comprehensive application of jihad.
In terms of politics, his theoretical work on Islamic advocacy, social justice and education, has left a significant mark on the Muslim Brotherhood (still a large and very important political organization in Egypt with related organizations in many countries around the world).
In terms of lives lost and property destroyed, Qutb's greatest impact has been through Islamic insurgent/terror groups in Egypt and elsewhere. His influence on Al Qaeda was felt through his brother, Muhammad Qutb, who moved to Saudi Arabia following his release from prison in Egypt and became a professor of Islamic Studies who edited, published and promoted his brother Sayyid's work. One of Muhammad Qutb's students and later an ardent followers was Ayman Zawahiri, who went on to become a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terror group and later a mentor of Osama bin Laden and a leading member of al-Qaeda.Zawahiri paid homage to Qutb in his work Knights under the Prophet's Banner.
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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